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The Spirit vs Letter of the Law



          The Spirit of the Law is a term commonly used to describe how one is to view the law of the scripture.  It is a term that many have used to interpret a very liberal view of the Law of God.  Many will say, "I practice the law in spirit, not in letter."  By saying this, they mean that they do not practice the law of God at all, but rather, they believe that since the Messiah practiced it for them they no longer need to obey God's commands.  The purpose of this article is to define the meaning of Spirit of the Law and identify it's application when studying the scripture.


Historical Definition:


          The Spirit of the Law is not a new term.  It goes back to ancient times.  It is also not simply a biblical term, but has its root in secular law as well.  In fact, we still practice this principle in US law today.  This term applies to our use in Constitutional Law, court room policies and procedures, and even in the rules of sport and games.  The popular play writer William Shakespeare dealt many times with the concepts of spirit of the law vs. letter of the law in his plays.  Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice is a perfect example.  The question to ask is, what does the term Spirit of the Law mean?

          Determining the intention of the legislature is the primary rule in construing law.  Under most circumstances, the law should be written so as to be clearly understood.  However, if a law is determined to be vague and ambiguous, the Canons of Construction will be applied.  The Canons of Constructions are a list of basic rules and maxims for interpreting law.  A maxim of law is, "An established principle or proposition.  A principle of law universally admitted, as being just and consonant with reason" (A Law Dictionary, John Bouvier, Revised 6th Edition, 1856).  These maxims of law are designed to determine the intent of the legislature, which is the primary rule of construing law.  Some examples of maxims are:

  • A l'impossible nul n'est tenu - No one is bound to do what is impossible.

  • Animus ad se omne jus ducit - It is to the intention that all law applies.

  • expressio unius est exclusio alterius - Whatever is omitted is understood to be excluded.

          These are just a few of the many maxims of law used to construe statutes with the primary rule to determine the intent of the legislature.  This is what the Spirit of the Law means in secular law.  To confirm this here are a few legal definitions.

  • Spirit of the law refers to ideas that the creators of a particular law wanted to have effect. It is the intent and purpose of the lawmaker.  (USLegal.com)

  • When one obeys the spirit of the law but not the letter, one is doing what the authors of the law intended, though not necessarily adhering to the literal wording.  (Wikipedia, Letter and Spirit of the Law)

          From these definitions you can conclude that the Spirit of the Law in secular law is the process by which one determines the intent of the Legislature.  The question to ask is this, what does this have to do with the scriptural definition of the Spirit of the Law?


Biblical Definition:


          The Spirit of the Law in the scriptures comes from a couple of verses.  In Romans 7:6, the Apostle Paul states, "But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter."  The comparison between the letter and spirit clearly signifies an interpretive understanding.  Serving in the "newness of spirit" is referencing how one interprets the scriptures.  After all, the Pharisees interpreted the scriptures using a very literal "letter" of the law interpretation.  This opens the door for an interpretation that is off point and out of context.  Construing law using the letter of the law will many times lead to a legalistic interpretation that completely ignores the intent of God for that law.  When the Apostle was teaching a spiritual interpretation of the law, he was not removing the letter of the law, but providing an interpretive model for believers to use in understanding God's law.  The Spirit of the Law from the scriptures perspective is just like the Spirit of the Law in the secular world.

          To understand this better we need to simply study the Greek and Hebrew words used for spirit in the scripture.  The Hebrew word for spirit is rûach.  This word speaks of the breath of God.  Strong's Dictionary defines it as, "wind; by resemblance breath, that is, a sensible (or even violent) exhalation" (Strong's Dictionary - H7307).  The Greek word for spirit is pneuma, which means, "a current of air, that is, breath (blast) or a breeze" (Strong's Dictionary - G4151).  Both the Greek and Hebrew word for spirit references the breath of God.  In light of our current legal definition for the Spirit of the Law, these two words demonstrate that the scriptural definition of the Spirit of the Law is the same.  When we study God's Law we are to determine the intent and purpose God had for that law.  After all, God is the lawmaker of the scriptures and it is His interpretation (breath/spirit) that we need to understand.  In fact, we use this phrase today regarding many topics.  For example, you might say, "In the spirit of Mother Theresa, we will care for the sick and the poor."  This shows the word spirit meaning following her example and understanding.  This is how we are to interpret the scripture, in the Spirit of God.

          This is what the Apostle Peter meant when He said, "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.  For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost" (2 Pet. 1:20-21).  This is the definition of the Spirit of the Law.  We are not to interpret the scripture at all, but instead we are to study and study until we understand the scriptures the way God intended.  Keep in mind, this does not give us the liberty to "wrest [the] scriptures", for this will only bring us our "own destruction" (2 Pet. 3:15-16).  We need to be diligent to study the scriptures the way God instructed.  Remember, the Bible is a law book, written in legal code.  Isaiah 28:9-14 tells us so.  As Isaiah states, "For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little"  (Is. 28:10).  We need to read each verse pertaining to each subject and understand the immediate context of the verse, which is what Isaiah means by "precept upon precept; line upon line."  Then we need to take every verse on the subject and put them together, which is what Isaiah means by "here a little, and there a little."  This method of study is what a lawyer would call, Code Pleading.  It is how a lawyer studies law.  For more on how to study the scriptures please read my article on How to Study.


Biblical Examples:


          The scripture is not without interpretive examples.  Many times God provided examples for us to learn from (1 Cor. 10:11).  In fact, this is how law works.  God's law includes several hundred commandments, statutes and judgments.  Commandments and statutes are specific laws to explain a specific command.  Judgments are examples of how to construe/interpret specific commandments and statutes.  It is with these judgments that we can see an example of how God intended us to study the scriptures.  Here are few examples of judgments in the scriptures:

  • The Building of the Temple:  The Temple was built by King Solomon around the 10th century BC.  This Temple was similar to the Tabernacle, but was quite different in many ways.  For example, the Tabernacle was mobile and built like a tent (Ex. 35:10-11).  The Temple was not mobile and built out of stone (1 Kings 6:7).  There were several other differences as well, but the question to ask is this, why was King Solomon allowed to break the specific commands of how to build the Tabernacle?  This is an example of the Spirit of the Law.  God's intent for the Tabernacle was to be used as a legal system while in the wilderness.  During Solomon's reign Israel was settled in the land and a permanent structure was within the Spirit of the Law.  Both the Tabernacle and the Temple served the same purpose.

  • David eating the showbread:  In 1 Samuel 21:3-6 King David was hungry and needed some bread. He asked the priest for bread, but only the shewbread from the Temple was available.  This bread was forbidden by God's law for anyone to eat except the priest's, yet David broke this law and ate it anyways (Lev. 24:5-9).  It is true that David broke the letter of the law, but he did not break the Spirit of the Law.  The Messiah explains this in Luke 6:3-4.  The intent of the law concerning the Show Bread was not to make someone starve, which made it okay for David to eat.  However, it would be sin if David made a practice of this (Heb. 10:26).

  • Ox in the ditch:  When the Messiah dealt with the Pharisees regarding working on the Sabbath, one of his examples was that of a man leading his ox to drink water or a man freeing his ox stuck in a ditch (Luke 13:14, 14:5).  These are examples of using the Spirit of the Law to interpret the law.  God's intent was not for an ox to go thirsty or an ox to die in a ditch so we could rest.  It is okay to deal with basic animal needs on the Sabbath when necessary.  However, it would be against the Sabbath laws to intentionally do unecessary work on the Sabbath, even work regarding the care of animals.  We cannot use the Spirit of the Law as an excuse to break the Sabbath, but when a need arises the grace to break the letter of the law is available.

  • Do not muzzle an ox:  In 1 Corinthians 9:7-9, the Apostle Paul uses the Spirit of the Law to explain a scriptural principle.  The law for not muzzling an ox while he is working is to allow the working animal to eat and provide the needed energy to complete the work.  It is wrong to keep the ox from doing so.  Likewise, you can extract from this law that man can eat of the fruit of his labors.  The fact that this law can be used to explain a principle that governs man does not remove the fact that it still governs the ox.  This verse does not give a new explanation of the law for muzzling an ox, but further explains the intent of God for this law.  It applies to humans and animals alike.

  • Sabbath Laws:  There are two laws regarding the Sabbath that need to be interpreted using the Spirit of the Law.  One law says we are not to travel on the Sabbath (Ex. 16:29) and another law says we cannot kindle a fire on the Sabbath (Ex. 35:3).  How are we to interpret this?  Since another commandment also says we cannot forsake the assembly on the Sabbath (Lev. 23:3, Heb. 10:25) we can conclude that there is obviously an exception to travel to the Sabbath assembly.  There might also be other emergencies that would allow for the breaking of the letter of this law as well.  In regards to kindling a fire on the Sabbath, since this statute was in regards to women cooking on the Sabbath, we can conclude that warming your house on the Sabbath during cold temperatures is okay.  This statute is so women can rest on the Sabbath as well, but does not mean your family needs to freeze by not using a wood burning stove.

          This is what Isaiah meant when he said the Messiah would, "magnify the law, and make it honourable" (Isaiah 42:21).  The Messiah came and demonstrated how to properly understand God's law.  This in no way removes the letter of the law for the Messiah clearly used the letter of the law as well.  In Matthew 5:17-19 the Messiah mentions the importance of every "jot" and "tittle" of God's law.  An example of how the Messiah interpreted the scriptures is in explaining the resurrection.  The Sadducees questioned the Messiah about the resurrection.  His answer was simple, yet He interpreted the scripture by the Letter of the Law.  His answer was, "have ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?  He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err" (Mark 12:26-27).  The Messiah used the tense of a verb to properly understand the resurrection.  This is very literal and a good demonstration of the letter of the law and it's proper use.  If the Letter of the Law fits with the Spirit of the Law, we need to interpret using the letter very literally.




          The Spirit of the Law has always been the way God intended the scripture to be interpreted.  This does not mean we ignore the Letter of the Law, but it does mean we need to make sure the Letter of the Law fits with the Spirit of the Law when we make judgments.  This concept is what the Pharisees and the Sadducees lacked in their own understanding.  They took this to an extreme and continually added extra commands to God's Law to make sure the people followed the Letter of the Law.  The Messiah dealt with this constantly in His encounters with the Pharisees.  He was constantly accused of breaking God's Law (Matt. 15:1-9, Mark 7:5-8).  The truth is the Messiah never once broke God's Law.  If He did He could not have been the Messiah.  The fact is, the Messiah was accused of breaking the "tradition of the elders" (Matt. 15:2) and not the Law of God.  We need to study God's Law using biblical principles of study.  The intent of our study should be to find out how God Himself intended the law to be.  After all, this is what the Spirit of the Law means.  It is the intent of the Lawmaker that is the law.

By Steve Siefken

  Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth

not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15 KJV